WM People guide: How to support staff with perinatal mental health issues

One in five new and expectant mothers experience mental health issues such as post-natal depression. How can you support these employees when they return to work?

One woman helping another up a ladder


One in five new and expectant mothers experience mental health issues such as post-natal depression, and  many new fathers also suffer from these illnesses. We look at how you can support these employees when they return to work.

What are perinatal mental health issues?

Perinatal mental health issues are those which occur during someone’s pregnancy or in the first year after they give birth – ‘perinatal’ is an umbrella term that covers both the antenatal period (pregnancy) and the postnatal period (first year after birth). Perinatal mental health problems include depression, anxiety, and OCD.

One in five new and expectant mothers experience mental health issues, according to a report last year from the Maternal Mental Health Alliance. New fathers also experience higher rates of depression than the general male population, studies have shown, and they seem to be particularly at risk if their partner has postnatal depression.

You can find more information about perinatal mental health here.

If an employee is returning to work while they’re still unwell or recovering, do they have to tell you?

An employee is not obliged to tell you about a mental health issue – but you may both find this helpful, in terms of planning any adjustments that they need. For example, if an employee says in advance that they need time off for a counselling session, this is easier to work around than someone hiding the truth and pulling a sickie on the day.

“The thing that we talk to employers about is ‘building the culture’,” says Jo Waterworth of Working Families, a charity that advises employers on supporting parents and carers. Employers have to gradually build a workplace culture where staff will speak up about their needs (more details on this are below).

What kinds of adjustments might an employee request?

Clock and calendar

They might request a phased or deferred return, using the annual leave they’ve accrued during parental leave, or unpaid parental leave, or general unpaid leave. They might also submit a flexible working request if they want medium- or long-term adjustments. 

Employees with a postnatal mental health issue do not have extra legal rights at work, except in instances where their illness fits the criteria to be classed as a disability. Women who have health issues during the antenatal period, ie pregnancy, have some protections.

What other kinds of support can an employer offer?

Waterworth has the following suggestions for employers:

  • Get in early: Before someone goes on parental leave, a line manager or HR team should tell them about all the mental health and wellbeing support that your workplace offers, such as Employee Assistance Programmes or parent networks. Sign them up for the networks before they go on leave.
  • Set up a buddy scheme: When someone returns, set them up with a buddy – a working parent who’s back in the swing of things. The buddy could even be someone with lived experience of perinatal mental health issues.
  • Listen to the individual: Ask someone exactly what adjustments they might need – and remember that everyone will be different. Some people will only need minor and temporary tweaks. Each employee will also have different preferences around how many colleagues know about their health issues.
  • Ensure consistency across managers: Give managers a checklist of everything they need to do. Training can also be helpful. 
  • Collect feedback: Ask parents who’ve returned to work and managed perinatal mental health issues for their feedback, so you can keep making the process better.
  • Build the culture: Keep building an open culture around mental health in your workplace. Senior leaders being open about their needs and flexible arrangements can be very effective.

What support should employers offer for fathers?

Brain illustration

Employers must ensure that all the support they put in place for mothers is also available for fathers, says Annie Belasco at PANDAS, a perinatal mental health charity that runs face-to-face and virtual support groups for parents.

PANDAS has seen a rise in fathers both using its services and volunteering to lead its support groups in recent years. “It’s not a novelty that men have perinatal mental illness too – it’s very common,” she says.

Where does an employer’s responsibility begin and end?

Employers can feel overwhelmed at the thought of getting involved with staff’s mental health. For some, it can be helpful to stay focused on the arena they already control: the workplace. Bosses should ask themselves what aspects of someone’s workplace or role might exacerbate their mental health issues, and what adjustments could be made?

“We’re not asking an employer to become a psychologist,” says Belasco. “What we’re asking them to do is to…know some of the signs and symptoms [of perinatal mental health issues], and know their policies on reasonable adjustments and flexible work, so they can make that employee’s life as comfortable as it can be.”


You can find PANDAS’ employer toolkit here. Working Families also has a range of toolkits here

Employees can read our guide to perinatal mental health issues and returning to work here.

Your Franchise Selection

Click the button below to register your interest with all the franchises in your selection

Request FREE Information Now

Your Franchise Selection

This franchise opportunity has been added to your franchise selection



Click the button below to register your interest with all the franchises in your selection

Request FREE Information Now

You may be interested in these similar franchises